Van Dyke Parks | Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra April 5, 2012 The Luminary Center for the Arts
Van Dyke Parks embarked on his first-ever tour this year at the age of 69. It has been a limited run of shows in the United States, but with any justice more audiences will get to experience what the crowd at the Luminary Center for the Arts saw last night. Part concert and part monologue, Parks gave a tour of America that touched on song craft, of course, but also literature, militarism, copyright law, first-world problems and the humbling power of nature. By the end of the night he chalked it all up to "a long life of illuminated wonders."
And illuminated wonder was how the night began, with a performance from local silent film-scoring troupe the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra, which gave the local debut for its score to Buster Keaton's The Balloonatic. The crowd responded heartily to both Keaton's bad-luck bust-ups and to the ensemble's sympathetic score, which featured Heather Rice's haunting, on-point theremin work as well as some fine banjo picking from Brien Seyle. It was a conscious move away from the piano- and string-heavy work of the band's earlier compositions and hints at a broader, more bucolic palette.
After a brief intermission, Parks took the stage with drummer Don Heffington (who has played with Bob Dylan, Over the Rhine and more) and upright bassist Jim Cooper. Wearing a blue Oxford shirt, black jeans and striped scarf, Parks sat behind an electric keyboard and began by praising Rats & People's performance, commenting on Keaton's ability at "illustrating man in crisis." He quipped that his set would feature no such drama. And with his fluid, punctuated piano playing and his rhythm section's ability to move from jazz-like changes to orchestrated dynamics, he was right.
The set began with the opening triptych from 1984's Jump!, his musical retelling of the Uncle Remus and Br'er Rabbit stories. Parks referred to Mark Twain several times throughout the evening, and he quoted Twain in calling the Br'er Rabbit stories "our most precious piece of stolen goods." In the context of last night's performance, the songs took on a political stance: Parks described writing the suite in the 1980s as controversial books (like Twain's) were being banned from schools and libraries. Writing a song-cycle about folklore tales seen by modern critics as inherently racist and demeaning to African-Americans was, in a sense, a daring move, though Parks also admitted that he wrote the songs for his children. Art moves in mysterious ways.
Parks' career as an arranger, songwriter and performer has been varied and storied (at least in certain circles), but last night's show didn't give a career overview. That would be taxing with a resume like Parks', and it runs counter to his aims as a storyteller. So there were no songs from Smile, his ill-fated collaboration with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, though he did perform the title track from Orange Crate Art, his 1995 album with Wilson. None of the fabulous calypso numbers from Discover America were aired; instead Parks played "Danza," a piece of romantic New Orleans piano music from the composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Parks paid tribute to University City native John Hartford with a cover of his "Delta Queen Waltz" as well. He only touched on his younger days with the encore selection, "The All Golden," which appears on his first LP Song Cycle and has been re-recorded for his series of 7-inch singles.
If patrons quibbled with any of the omissions, or the focus on Parks' less-celebrated work from the '80s and '90s, they kept it to themselves. Judging from the line of middle-aged men lining to buy Parks' $20 7-inches and to have their copies of Discover America autographed, the crowd at the Luminary realized that something special, rare and very human had just taken place.
Notes and setlist are on the next page. Critic's Notebook: I'd apologize for the lack of photographs from last night's show, but I'll leave it to Parks to explain his no-camera policy: "I will ride a bronco nude with you after the show, but please don't take a fuzzy picture of a sharp object."
Before the show started, there were at least three men whom I mistook for Van Dyke Parks. Do artists always draw people that look like them to their shows? Count the number of black-rim glasses at the next Elvis Costello show.
Personal Bias: I only got into Parks' solo work at the urging of Matt Frederick of the Rats & People Motion Picture Orchestra in advance of that band's tribute to Parks (alongside Theodore) at 2010's An Under Cover Weekend. I'm glad I did, as his Discover America hasn't left my side since then.
Several kind people complimented my interview with Parks from earlier this week, but all I had to do was answer the phone and he took care of the rest. It was a true pleasure and honor to get 40 minutes of the man's time, and I only hope his big-heartedness came through in the transcript; I know it did on stage last night.
Overheard: "I should have had to work much harder to be in the same room as Van Dyke Parks." Love Expert's singer Steve Carosello. Setlist: 1. "Jump!" (Instrumental) 2. "Opportunity for Two" 3. "Come Along" 4. "Orange Crate Art" 5. "Delta Queen Waltz" 6. "Danza" 7. "Cowboy" 8. "Wings of a Dove" 9. "Sail Away" Encore: 10. "The All Golden"